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In 1972, Ira Levin published a short little book. It’s a dark satire of gender and what men and women actually want and what they say they want. The Stepford Wives follows the story of Joanna and Walter, who move from the city to the suburbs with their two children in search of more space and clean air, away from the stresses of city life.

In 1970s America, Joanna and Walter are active participants in the women’s movement and look to find like-minded friends in the town of Stepford. They discover that not only has the once active women’s movement vanished, it is actively discouraged. Joanna and Walter are surprised to find that most of the wives apparently love to stay home and clean their homes rigorously.

“That’s what she was, Joanna felt suddenly. That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.”

Joanna finds two other women, also recently arrived in Stepford, that share her values and are equally flummoxed by the other women of Stepford. But when Joanna’s closest friend and ally, Bobbie, transforms over the weekend into a Stepford wife who loves cooking and cleaning instead of conversation and social change, Joanna gets suspicious and looks for answers. She suspects the Men’s Association might have something to do with it, but Walter assures her that the men’s club is merely a great way to socialize. Walter also claims he can better change Stepford from the inside since all the prominent men from Stepford are part of the Association.

Spoiler alert: Joanna attempts to flee, but is caught and transformed into a robotic Stepford wife. Apparently the men have various businesses in animatronics and have been secretly transforming women into ideally figured robots. Joanna’s spouse, Walter, seemed like a good guy. Certainly not the guy who would prefer his wife to be a robot that only enjoyed cooking, cleaning, and serving his needs. There is room for criticism in the portrayal of the men and the women in Levin’s book, and many have critiqued the book. And yet the author seemed to suggest that even the good guys secretly do not want women as equal partners.

As I scroll through the studies on women leaving the work force in large numbers, it seems worthy of reflection. Women do a great deal of invisible work with regard to childcare and the care of elderly or other people with needs. Surely we have come a long way from 1972 to 2022, but the pandemic stripped off many veneers in our current society. Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the ever expanding job in American society. She detailed the idea of domestic work as what makes it possible to succeed in one’s career:

“The assumption of domestic support is just one part of the equation, though. That support is what makes it possible for people to figure out care for their children and their elders, to ensure that they have nourishing food on the table, to make sure they get a solid, uninterrupted night of sleep, to feel comfortable inviting colleagues and peers to their homes, to feel confident that they’ll have clean clothes when they wake up, and that the problems with their cars or homes or health insurance coverage will be addressed, and their children’s summer camp schedules coordinated, and holiday cards distributed….That support liberates them from the work of balancing the mental load – and again, allows them to focus the bulk of their attention towards the work they do for pay and glory.”

But increasingly, jobs in the United States require us to do our job as well as an administrative job, or maybe two. Employers expect workers to do the work of more than one person, and the amount of burnout, movement out of the workforce, or complete career changes in recent years clearly shows this system is not sustainable.

Unless of course we can find robots to do the domestic support.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

7 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I value your unique voice and angle on these pages.

  • Magnificent writing as usual. Thank you for your fine insights.

    I remember reading this book when I was in high school. It led to a great many heated discussions.

    Blessings,

    Mark

  • Arika says:

    Yes! I really needed this today—along with the Anne Helen Peterson article that you linked to. Thank you! It’s a systemic failure, primarily, even when we factor in the progress that’s been made toward gender equity in recent decades. The system is still misaligned at its core, and I’m not sure that we as a society have the will to change it. Yet. Certainly it will take the concerted efforts of those like Walter with the power to make actual changes from the inside—and not to just place a few well-intentioned bandaids (hiring more women and non-binary folks, offering decent parental leave benefits, etc.) without also fundamentally questioning the structures and values that allow the current system to continue functioning and even flourishing on the backs of invisible unpaid laborers.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Oh my goodness, Dr. Koerselman, thank you.
    Have to say that I have abandoned thinking “it’s society.” There are singular people in charge of us. I wonder if only their having an inner revolution can there be a shift from achievement, prosperity, protocol, etc to caring for one another. I grew up in a little town where I don’t remember once hearing anyone use the phrase “ make money.” What I DID hear always was “make ENOUGH to pay the bills, maybe take a vacation.”

  • Mike Kugler says:

    The most recent episode of Julia features a conversation between Childs and Betty Friedan, on a similar topic.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Rebecca, Another article that had me think. That is excellent so keep on doing it.

  • Micki Fuhrman says:

    Excellent artiicle. Women bear the burden and blame for so much in our society, yet men still hold the power.

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